Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Five-Sentence Review: ‘The Avengers’ as Lesser Whedona

with 19 comments

Of course I deeply enjoyed The Avengers, but my sense is it’ll be up to The Avengers 2: Avengers Reveng’d! to salvage the series from the scrapheap of Lesser Whedona. Could there be any better confirmation of the kneejerk elitist sensibilities of Internet nerddom than to have this film be Joss’s first genuine mainstream success? Though certainly funny and engaging, and on occasion very clever, The Avengers is more or less superheroes completely by-the-numbers, almost entirely lacking in the deconstructive self-awareness that characterizes more artistically ambitious Whedon creations like Buffy, Firefly, and especially Cabin in the Woods and the too-neglected Dollhouse. The film has zero critical purchase on its genre, and precious little Whedonesque irony about itself.

In short, The Avengers is what Buffy would have been, if it were only fight scenes and quips.

19 Responses

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  1. On the plus side, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo bring their A games to the material, and Whedon achieves the near-impossible in making Iron Man 2‘s forgettable Black Widow a compelling character — so congratulations are in order there…


    May 6, 2012 at 8:33 pm

  2. You just don’t like fun. :)

    In all seriousness, though: Dollhouse is a deeply interesting, highly personal…creative failure, or at least a muddle. And I say that as someone who thought it was quite often genuinely terrific and some of Whedon’s best and most intriguing work. The Avengers, on the other hand, is pure summer blockbuster fun — and I think one of the best most recent examples of that — which makes up for what it may lack in introspection and meta-commentary in exceptional polish, smart construction, great excitement (both real and CGI), and a whole lot of genuine cleverness and warmth for the characters. It’s not Whedon’s most personal or demanding piece of work, but I don’t think it’s a lesser piece simply for being more accessible. Therein is the very definition of (tiresome) elitist nerdom: nothing can be good if everybody else likes it. I thought Whedon’s stamp was all over the movie — which is in itself no small feat, given the kind of wrangling and studio pressures he must have been facing from the very start. There’s a significant difference between pleasing a mass audience and doing so with by-the-numbers filmmaking. Lots of people like Michael Bay movies, for instance, but I’m not going to start defending him. (Although, as an aside: they both graduated from Wesleyan, and only a year apart.)

    If your big complaint is that the creatively more challenging, more flawed, and less accessible Dollhouse wasn’t as big a success as the big-budget Hollywood superhero movie that is The Avengers, or that Whedon was unable to bring the same kind of self-commentary on the genre as he did with self-created projects like Buffy or Dr. Horrible…well, welcome to the world, my son. Look at it this way: a huge mainstream success will let Whedon make more of those more personal, more challenging projects and put those too in front of more people. This is good not only for summer blockbusters, but also for future Dollhouses.


    May 6, 2012 at 9:06 pm

    • Apologist!

      I said I deeply enjoyed it. It’s great fun. But I’ll take deeply interesting, highly personal creative failure over popcorn every time. It’s just how I’m built!


      May 6, 2012 at 9:25 pm

  3. Precisely. It feels annoying to say something like “This was watchable but it wasn’t Serenity/whatever.” But the point is, it’s strange feeling happy for someone’s success when he’s made something that might as well not have been his. It’s not just on a curve of “Well, it’s better than Iron Man 2 at least” and the only reason we as viewers should care about financial success is because it gives the artists opportunity to do more, in Whedon’s case hopefully something much better than that was. If it isn’t, I think I’d prefer he make interesting material of modest success.

    Dan Watson

    May 6, 2012 at 9:32 pm

  4. it’s strange feeling happy for someone’s success when he’s made something that might as well not have been his

    That’s well-put.


    May 6, 2012 at 9:38 pm

  5. I’m not so sure.

    I think there’s a certain amount of, as you put it, deconstructive self-awareness built in to the material here: most obviously in Captain America, but also Loki. That excellent line about Loki lacking “conviction”, the over-the-top speeches about freedom from freedom that surely we were expected to find funny? I don’t think Whedon takes full advantage of what is already there, but given these characters some amount is inevitable.


    May 7, 2012 at 9:02 am

    • I’m curious, where did you see Captain America pushing on the material? I thought he played the character pretty agonizingly straight, and he seems to think so too:

      Joss Whedon: You have to write something that you believe in. Captain America was my ground zero for this film. The idea of someone who had been in World War II, had seen people laying down their lives in the worst circumstances in a world where the idea of a man being somebody who is part of something, is a very different concept of manhood. And the way that, in my opinion, it has devolved from Steve (Rogers) to Tony (Stark), is fascinating. The idea of the soldier — the person who is willing to lay down their life — is very different than the idea of the superhero. I wanted to make, from the start, a war movie — I wanted to put these guys through more than they would be put through in a normal superhero movie. It was very important for me to build that concept and to have Tony reject that concept, on every level, so that, in the end, when he’s willing to make the sacrifice and lay himself down, you get where he’s come and how Steve affected him.

      Read more movie news at:

      As for the freedom-from-freedom stuff, that’s a note Joss hits a lot: see Serenity, see Dollhouse, see the Jasmine arc in Angel. I don’t think we’re supposed to find it funny — how could we, when the first, set in Germany, ends with back-to-back Hitler references? I actually took that stuff as being on-the-level too, and thought it Joss’s failed but heroic attempt to turn the hopelessly pointless Loki into something like an actual character.


      May 7, 2012 at 9:09 am

      • Re. Captain America, the movie plays a lot (adjusting values of ‘a lot’ to cope with a multi-superhero cast) on the anachronistic nature of the sort of superhero he is – the earnestness, the patriotism, the dorky costume. I realise that the other characters (even Iron Man) show superhero nobility at times, and the Whedon quote you posted does seem to come out on the side of Steve’s earnestness, but I think there’s at least an examination of the idea that it may no longer be possible to play a superhero completely straight.

        Apart from this there’s a certain amount of playing with how stories like this are supposed to go – the commentor after me mentions Coulson’s self-aware last words, after which we get Fury blatantly playing on people’s sentiments and lying (or I thought it was blatant, but apparently we needed Agent Hill to belabour the point). There’s also Black Widow manipulating narratives of feminine sentimentality.

        As for Loki – and keep in mind that I am likely very blinded by my fondness for the character – I wonder if part of the reason for setting those scenes in Germany was to invoke the differences, rather than the similarities to Hitler. There are over-the-top speeches and people kneeling, but there’s no sense that Loki believes any of what he’s saying, and certainly no one else is being swept away by his rhetoric. From his exchanges with Thor it seems more likely that he sees humans as a) disposable and b) for some reason important to the brother he rather sporadically hates . A lot of it comes down to, as I said in my earlier comment, the line about his lack of conviction. I’m sure it’ll seem like I’m reaching here, but there’s something rather postmodern about Loki – he can’t convince himself of the justice of his cause, or of…anything else, really. So his evil is ineffective – or performed and over the top, hence the bombastic evil dictator speeches. In the Marvel canon he’s all over the place and I think that’s in part what you’re describing as “hopelessly pointless”. But he’s based on a trickster god, and that complete randomness is, I think, a part of his unpredictability.


        May 7, 2012 at 7:42 pm

      • That’s an interesting read on Loki. I’ll think about this the next time I watch the film…


        May 7, 2012 at 8:33 pm

  6. More deconstructive self-awareness: Coulson’s self-aware death speech (“it’s okay, boss, they needed something to– gackk”), Hulk’s interruption of Loki monologuing, Tony’s awareness mid-arc that Cap is starting to rub off on him (“a living legend… who actually seems to live up to the legend”), even Widow’s punchline to Hawkeye (“I hit you on the head”) and Thor’s to the team (“well, he’s adopted”) betray some metafictional panache.

    (term “monologuing” courtesy of The Incredibles, another superhero movie that played it simultaneously straight and self-aware)

    Alex Chaffee

    May 7, 2012 at 11:03 am

    • Aside from Coulson’s death speech — for which I posit the ultimate end-of-movie punchline should have been that Fury lied and he hadn’t actually died at all — the rest just seem like garden-variety gags to me.

      I’d say ‘The Incredibles’ is much closer to what a Joss Whedon ‘Avengers’ should have been like than the actual Joss Whedon ‘Avengers.’


      May 7, 2012 at 11:05 am

  7. I guess I just don’t agree with the idea that self-commentary is the only (or even best) way to tell an effective, engaging, and intelligent story. Or that The Avengers is a work-for-hire paint-by-numbers job that could have just as easily been done by anybody else.

    Maybe that’s where the difference in our experiences in watching the movie lie. I liked Dollhouse a lot. I really loved Cabin in the Woods. I don’t want every movie to be those things.


    May 7, 2012 at 11:08 am

    • I promise, I enjoyed it! My whole point is that this is / is going to be regarded as one of Joss’s lesser works, even if it enjoyably killed a few hours and made the frozen head of Walt Disney a bunch of money. You’re leaping from “this is lesser” to “this is bad” in a way I don’t intend.


      May 7, 2012 at 11:10 am

      • On the larger point, though, I think we probably do disagree. It doesn’t have to be self-commentary or metafictionality per se, but displaying a lack of self-awareness about narrative and genre does condemn a work a bit for me. We’ve been telling stories for a long time! Artistically ambitious texts play with that history.


        May 7, 2012 at 11:14 am

  8. No, I get that. My “You just don’t like fun” comment was just meant in…well, fun, which I hoped was obvious. I have no doubt you did enjoy the movie, and honestly, I’d be fine if you hadn’t. I don’t think you’re equating “lesser” with “bad,” but I’m also not ready to equate “less self-commentary” with “lesser.” Even if Whedon had wanted to, I think it’s a little crazy to think he could have turned The Avengers into some kind of knowing deconstruction of the superhero genre. What you found “pretty agonizingly straight” about Captain America, for instance, isn’t at all removed from the character as he was in that movie.

    If what you wanted was a deconstruction and more self-commentary, that’s fine. A difference in expectations or preference, that’s all. I like that stuff too, but I don’t think a movie is a failure if “all” it does is tell a fun story well. Personally, The Avengers was kind of everything I wanted it to be and more.

    And I haven’t looked really closely at the box office, but I think Cabin was a decent success story too, but there’s clearly room for both types of Whedon projects, wherever you think they fall on a better-or-lesser scale.


    May 7, 2012 at 12:05 pm

  9. I can see why you’d call it “lesser Whedonia”, but I also think there’s a powerful and important accomplishment that puts his stamp on it indelibly. The man who created the Buffyverse was well-suited to tell the first story that exploits the interconnectedness of the Marvel universe. As someone who has really tired of superhero movies, I thought his touch was everywhere in it, and it gave it a liveliness that nailed the feel of Marvel comics.

    As part of the continuum of themes in his work that link authority, power, institutions and morality, it had enough gestures to be included but not enough to make a dent. Definitely lesser on that count. But I actually think the Whedon touch was on full display and had its mettle tested in The Avengers. By virtue of being big, successful and fun, it earns a place in the canon.

    Josh K-sky

    May 7, 2012 at 5:15 pm

  10. it should have been obvious there was no way for this to be a five sentence review.


    May 9, 2012 at 1:15 am

  11. Great Review! Love the length. Here is my take if you’d like to read:

    Most Recently Watched

    August 8, 2012 at 9:05 am

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